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Female diver: Monument name excludes women

Sep. 30, 2012 - 10:07AM   |   Last Updated: Sep. 30, 2012 - 10:07AM  |  
Retired Cmdr. Darlene Iskra says naming the monument "The Man in the Sea Memorial" takes away from women's contributions to the diving community.
Retired Cmdr. Darlene Iskra says naming the monument "The Man in the Sea Memorial" takes away from women's contributions to the diving community. (Navy)
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This 1971 photo shows the Naval School of Diving and Salvage in the Washington Navy Yard, the future site of the monument to military divers. (Kurt Hearth)
The Man in the Sea Memorial Monument will feature a 10- to 11-foot statue of a diver. (Courtesy of Jeff West)

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Is the Man in the Sea Memorial Monument a suitable name, or should it be changed? What would you call it? Send ideas to navylet@navytimes.com. Please include your name, rank or rating and location.

The name of a proposed monument to honor divers is raising questions of sexism.

A grassroots effort is underway to create The Man in the Sea Memorial Monument to honor divers from the Navy, Coast Guard, Army and Marine Corps.

But a former Navy diver is taking issue with the tribute because she claims it misses one key point: women also don the diving mask. Retired Cmdr. Darlene Iskra, one of the first female divers to graduate from the Naval School of Diving and Salvage, told Navy Times she was at first pleased with the idea to place a statue at the Navy Yard in Washington.

"Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, Man in the Sea?'" she said. "That doesn't even depict all military divers."

Iskra shared her problem with the name in a column posted to Time.com on Sept. 18.

But memorial planners say the name doesn't have to do with men or women.

The name is a nod to diving innovation and history, said Jeff West, a former Army diver and advocate for the monument.

The Man-in-the-Sea program aided U.S. efforts during the Cold War and involved research enabling divers to operate at greater depths. The results of this program would benefit Operation Ivy Bells, the mission in which Navy divers tapped underwater Soviet communication lines, West said. The original goal of Man-in-the-Sea was to be able to send divers to 600 feet, with hopes that 1,000 feet could eventually be reached, according to a Naval Research Review article from 1965.

Research also led to improvements for reducing decompression sickness, body heat loss and underwater acoustics, according to the Office of Naval Research. Research for the program also addressed oxygen toxicity, since breathing pure oxygen while under pressure can cause death.

"That was the most technology advancement that had happened in diving technology, ever," West said. "That's where it all really was developed ... with that program. [The lessons] are used in diving every day today."

Iskra, the first woman to command a commissioned naval vessel the Bolster-class rescue and salvage ship Opportune stressed her criticism of the name is only her opinion and not the opinion of all female divers.

Ken Dreger, CEO of the Homeland Security Policy Institute Group, the nonprofit behind the monument's creation, said there are no plans to change the name of the monument.

In the seven years it has been in the works, he said this is the first criticism he's heard.

"We haven't had any women stand up until now," said Dreger, a former boatswain's mate seaman. "We'd love to have 300 women in favor of this, please send us some letters of support," he said. "I want to reach out to you ladies."

Iskra said she does not believe the naming is malicious or intentionally exclusive. Rather, she just wanted to encourage men to think about women in any community before naming a project.

"I don't think they specifically exclude women, but that's the way it always is," she said. "People name things and they do exclude women because most of the guys who name these things don't think of women's contributions."

Iskra, in her Time column, suggested The Divers Memorial Monument as an alternative name.

There are seven female active-duty divers out of 1,270 divers in the Navy, according to Navy Personnel Command. There are no female diving reservists.

‘She had to prove herself'

Women were not traditionally divers because the equipment is very heavy and many women were not physically strong enough to join the rating, Iskra said. Hull Technician 2nd Class Donna Tobias became the Navy's first female hard-hat diver when she graduated from the Navy's Deep Sea Diving School in 1975, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

"She had to prove herself, to be twice as good at everything, and she was," said retired Master Diver Steven Lechner, in a Navy write-up on Tobias.

Iskra graduated from diving school in 1980 and said the rating continues to be welcoming to women who are able to overcome the physical challenges.

"For the contemporary group of [male divers], women have been in that community since 1979," Iskra said, adding that these men probably don't think twice about female divers.

The monument's proposed site at the former Naval School of Diving and Salvage at the Navy Yard was approved by the installation in a letter dated April 15, 2011, but it is still awaiting approval by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, according to a Navy Yard public affairs officer.

The monument will include a large, open-air metal structure, landscaping and a bridge crossing the canal. The centerpiece of the memorial is a 10- to 11-foot bronze statue of a diver wearing traditional diving gear, including the bell, meaning visitors will not be able to see the statue's face.

"Could be black or white, man or woman. You can't tell," West said. "We did that on purpose, so we didn't exclude anyone."

The project is expected to cost $10 million and the fundraising is just beginning. The organization lists actor Tom Hanks as one of its donors on its website, www.hspig.org.

No public money will be used to build the memorial, Dreger said, and there is no completion date.

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